In the afternoon of April 15 four potential preconditions to riot existed at the Panama depot:
- Presence of filibusters
- Old resentments against the railroad bosses
- Arrogance and barbarity of American ruffians
- Insufficient local police
- Unresolved jurisdictional issues
- Activists within local government
Sequence of Events
The steamship, Illinois, had left New York on April 5, 1856 for Aspinwall, Panama. Nearly a thousand passengers had crowded onto the 2,000-ton side-wheel steamer built to carry half that number. Most were bound for San Francisco. The voyage from New York took about twelve days. Conditions in steerage were intolerable. Sanitation did not exist. Food was nearly inedible, water not potable. Passengers were disgusted. Men who drank liquor probably got drunk and stayed drunk for the whole trip. The passengers would cross Panama by railroad only to face another fourteen-day voyage to San Francisco. Already in a hostile state of mind the passengers boarded the rail cars at Aspinwallon the afternoon of April 15. On arrival at Panama Bay they expected to meet the ferry, Taboga, which would take them to the steamer John L. Stephens. Unfortunately on this particular day the tide was low, the Taboga was aground, and so the transfer would be delayed until nighttime.
By six o'clock in the evening nerves were frazzled. That is when Jack Oliver and Miguel Hanrahan met over the infamous slice of watermelon. Minutes later a band of natives, armed with knives and stones went looking for Jack, first in the Triangle Saloon and then in the American hotels and bars near the beach bordering the Cienaga. The bells of the Church of Santa Ana rang. Blacks assembled at the Plaza and then ran to the hotels. They threw stones at the fronts of the buildings. A few armed Americans fired on the natives. The native band increased in size and broke into the hotels and stores ransacking them and attacking the Americans with knives. The confrontation spread to the depot and the violence escalated into a major riot. Americans armed themselves with their own revolvers and with muskets found in the depot. Railroad officials tried but failed to restrain some drunken passengers from firing. The officials pulled an old canon out of the sand and loaded it with rivets.
The band of natives swelled to a large mob drunk on the hotel liquor supplies. Some of them were by then also armed with muskets. Eventually they got possession of the canon.
Both sides summoned the authorities. The natives gathered in the Plaza of Santa Ana and rallied around their leaders one of whom was the activist referred to by the Americans as "Obamo" but whose real name was "Pedro Obarrio y Peres." They sent for the Governor. The American's sought their Consul, Thomas Ward, who arrived at the depot to try to stop the Americans from firing. However the filibusters in the crowd were bent on defending the hotels and rescuing women and children trapped there.
When the Governor arrived at the depot he was warned he was in personal danger. As he proceeded from the depot toward the Cienaga (with Obarrio y Peres) he was fired on by Americans. Shots also struck Obarrio, Consul Ward and his secretary. Soon the police arrived and joined the tumult.
The most serious dispute centers on this moment. Did Americans fire on the Police Chief? Most, but not all, American witnesses said they did not. Instead they claimed the police fired on the depot under orders from the Governor. The Governor admitted he had told the Chief to advance and occupy the station.
The two sides argued over his words: Did the Governor mean "Advance and vanquish!" or "Advance and secure!" Whatever his intent, neither side was willing to budge from its respective perception.
Whichever way it started, the mob successfully assaulted the station, broke in and began to rob, brutalize and kill the passengers. The police did not, or could not, stop it. Before it was over more than twenty-five Americans and two Panameņos had been killed and an equal number wounded.
The above description is culled from all the sources available: news reports, official depositions, diplomatic correspondence, damage claims, memoirs and memorials. It is an attempt to present both sides. Exaggerations and bias appear in all accounts and depositions so the truth will never be known.
The San Francisco Bulletin and Sacramento Daily Union published an account written by a passenger named George Gordon. His bias, if any, is not clear. Gordon was a prominent forty-niner, San Francisco pioneer, land developer, and entrepreneur who happened to be travelling across the Isthmus with his family. He had a habit of writing letters to editors--usually about business and political matters--speaking out against vigilantes and filibusters. Nevertheless he was acquainted with C. K. Garrison, Vanderbilt's former agent and Walker supporter. With this intriguing resume, it is curious that Gordon provided perhaps the most balanced coverage of this event. His account indicates that Jack Oliver's drunken act was the initial cause of the scuffle and that some Americans did fire on the natives. What is more curious is that he quotes other passengers who claim the Americans fired on the police. Of these witnesses one was the filibuster, Captain W.C. Waters and the other was Major Pierson B. Reading, a prominent California pioneer. (Major Pierson B. Reading came to California with the 1844 Chiles-Walker wagon party. He was not only a prominent pre-gold rush pioneer but a friend of John Sutter. He owned a large ranch and is thought to be the person for whom "Redding" California was named.)
Neither passengers nor the English-language newspapers addressed the possible participation of the stranded filibusters. No testimony was taken to support or negate the suggestion that filibusters played a role in provoking the riot despite the fact that several of the victims were known to be filibusters from the Cortes. Only Lino de Pombo emphasized the presence of filibusters. The Gaceta del Estado emphasized that blacks were terrified with the idea that there were filibusters present at the riot and that they were intent on treachery. (Gaceta del Estado, April 26, 1856, 1:2)
A Filibuster's Account
The most revealing of all the published accounts was the letter to the editor of the Chronicle from a Filibuster who wrote the following:
"Joseph Stokes, two others, and myself, returned Californians by the Cortes, were standing in the Pacific Saloon, about half-past 5 o'clock, P.M., in Panama, when several natives commenced to throw paving stones at us, and brandish clubs and machetes. We were at the bar. There was a dining room in the rear, where there were some fifty or sixty men, women and children. We defended the back room with our revolvers, until all escaped, and shots had become exhausted. We fired about twenty-three shots. I think Stokes' shots--six in number--all took effect, for he was deliberate, though he fired rapidly. We then ran out of the saloon, back, for the Railroad Depot....We reloaded our revolvers in the Depot, and sallied out into the street....The natives gathered around, and Stokes advanced and fired with his six-shooter, taking deliberate aim. He fired slower the second time than at first. I fired only once on this occasion....As I fired my first shot a native struck my arm with a club, and my pistol dropped. Stokes stepped up and shot down the man who struck me. I then recovered my pistol. Stokes had now exhausted his charges, and I handed him my pistol. He continued to fire....Stokes fell, shot through the neck by a musket ball....I think the twenty to twenty-five Californians who stood their ground did great execution. This was before the military came up." ("The Massacre at Panama---The Death of Stokes," Daily California Chronicle, May 6, 1856, p. 2, col. 3.)
U.S. Claims Commission
The U.S. government created a commission which held a claims convention with New Granada September 10, 1857. President Pierce issued a proclamation that all private damage claims of passengers and companies were to be evaluated impartially by the Commission. The U.S. Government would issue certificates to claimants. In the end 160 claims were approved. The files contain sworn testimony of the claimants describing in detail the events of the riot and their losses. Boiler plate common to all claims was crafted to hold the government of New Granada responsible.